After being diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2001, Jackie James-Creedon felt angry and frustrated, unable to figure out what caused her illness. She suspected it was the environment in Tonawanda, in upstate New York, where she grew up. She wasn’t alone – other residents living in the community wondered if the air was making them sick as well. As Jackie discovered more people were equally affected, she was moved to become an environmental activist for her community.
After being tested by her doctor, James-Creedon became convinced polluted air from the factories led to her diagnosis. She founded The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York in Tonawanda, where 53 industrial coke factories resided in the neighborhood. Under community pressure, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) conducted a study and found that the factories were the predominant source of emissions, which caused leukemia, other cancers and respiratory disease.
In a mustard-yellow scrapbook stuffed with newspapers and photographs, her fight against Tonawanda Coke’s criminal activities plays out like a slideshow – and this David-versus-Goliath battle seems to start with one bucket.
Taking Action with Citizen Science
Citizen science harnesses various tools for testing air, soil, and water, in an accessible and affordable way. One hub for this kind of science is Public Lab in New York City, a community and non-profit democratizing science to address environmental issues that affect people, according to its website. Its founders established a broad community-science infrastructure attracting activists, social and natural scientists, planners and educators.
After Jackie James-Creedon began her work in citizen science, she was introduced to the founders at Public Lab, who have been supportive of her work over the years.
According to a report published by one of its founders, Shannon Dosemagen, Public Lab was launched in 2011 after a community of supporters came together and documented the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill. They captured detailed aerial images and maps using a balloon with a camera attached by fishing line, plastic bottle, and duct tape to investigate the pollution that turned into a movement.
Public Lab has since expanded its projects across the country and to other parts of the world such as Chile, Palestine and parts of Africa.
One of its founders, Liz Barry, hopes open channels for citizen reporting will replace barriers that kept residents out of a closed loop. Areas of the country facing environmental injustice will have “speed lanes” to access dedicated regulatory scientists who have funding to do needed studies.
“Climate-change communication will no longer feature white guys filming white ice,” said Barry, “but instead local and active sites of natural-resource extraction that is causing great human and ecological harm.”
Kelli Terry-Sepulveda, a scientist and Bronx native, successfully used science to test the air quality in her community of Hunts Point.
In parts of the South Bronx, on humid days, smog settles to ground level and the smell of diesel is overwhelming as large trash trucks rumble by.
“When you are in Hunt’s Point, the moment you come into that community, you are assaulted by trucks,” said Terry-Sepulveda.
Public Lab is attempting to better organize their “barnraisers” – also known as their Public Lab conference – with an emphasis on working together.
“We are all just doing our own thing, but instead of reinventing the wheel we should be learning from each other,” said James-Creedon.
James-Creedon’s “bucket brigade” resulted in a guilty verdict and criminal charges against Tonawanda Coke. The company and its environmental manager were found guilty of several charges in the U.S. District Court and face more than $200 million in fines. The money will be used for a study at the University of Buffalo, which will produce scientific data on the tragic effects of the company’s criminal acts. James-Creedon is leading that effort.
She says there will be new administration and leadership in their regulatory agencies.
“It makes citizen and community science more important than ever,” said James-Creedon. “It appears we might not be able to rely on government to protect us. So we will have to rely on ourselves.”